ATHENS — Kirby Smart has explained his business strategy for Georgia football as a simple one when it comes to investments.
The most important question before Smart puts time or energy into most anything is, “Does it help the program win a championship?”
So the sixth-year Bulldogs’ head coach -can be excused if he hasn’t spent much time thinking about the College Football Playoff National Championship matchup between Ohio State and Alabama at 8 p.m. on Monday (TV: ESPN).
Smart divulged on a recent podcast with Bryant McFadden that Tide receiver DeVonta Smith would have gotten his vote for the Heisman Trophy if he had one.
Smart also shared more insight into Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields, a former Georgia High School standout who many of his former UGA Bulldogs teammates will be pulling for to upset Alabama in Miami Gardens, Fla.
But when it comes to thinking about Georgia’s CFP Championship Game against Alabama on Jan. 8, 2018, Smart explained that while it doesn’t cross his mind often, on Monday night it certainly will.
“You get so busy as a coach, but when it hits me most is when the national championship is going on, watching it, you know what it means to play in that game,” Smart said on the ‘All Things Covered’ Podcast on Dec. 29.
“That whole time seems so surreal for me and for us, because it was wild, we had to fly California and play in the Rose Bowl. We come back and win that game, and we’re flying back on an all-night flight and we’re six days from kicking off in Atlanta.”
Indeed, it was almost as if Alabama benefitted by not playing in the SEC Championship Game in 2017 essentially getting a bye before being included in the College Football Playoff field.
Further, the Tide had the benefit of playing a weaker Clemson team in New Orleans, neither its travel nor its game was as taxing as what the Bulldogs went through leading up to the title game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Smart admitted to McFadden that Tua Tagovailoa’s poise came as “a shock” to him, but he had warned his team Alabama could make a change at quarterback, and he heard good things about Tua.
“I’d heard all year from friends in Tuscaloosa that they liked the younger quarterback better than Jalen (Hurts),” Smart said. “In our game at halftime, I said, ‘guys they may have to make a change here, they are struggling, not scoring.”
Indeed, Georgia held a 13-0 lead at halftime over Alabama, Hurts just 3-of-8 passing for 21 yards.
Smart recalled it took Tagovailoa a while to get going against the Bulldogs’ defense.
“People forget get came in and actually threw a pick on a strange play, like a busted play, the receiver was blocking downfield and Deandre Baker picks off a pass Tua threw to him,” Smart said. “The receiver must have got the wrong call, he thought it was a sprint-out run, and he throws a pick,
“I’m like man, this guy, he’s struggling a little bit, we sacked him a couple of times, had him confused, and then the next thing you know, he starts throwing dimes.”
Tagovailoa finished the game 14-of-24 passing for 166 yards with 3 touchdowns and the interception Smart referenced.
Georgia was forced to rely on its pass game as Nick Chubb was held to 25 yards rushing on 18 carries, Sony Michel setting the pace with 98 yards on 14 carries.
Jake Fromm, then just a freshman, was 16-of-32 passing for 232 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
Still, the game appeared to belong to the Bulldogs in overtime.
Rodrigo Blankenship booted a 51-yard field goal to give Georgia a 23-20 lead in overtime, and then Jonathan Ledbetter and Davin Bellamy sacked Tagovailoa for a 16-yard loss on the Tide’s first play on its ensuing possession.
It was second-and-26, and Georgia fans need hear no more, the mere down and distance conjuring up the painful image of DeVonte Smith hauling in a deep pass from Tagovailoa, who had expertly looked off the Bulldogs’ safety.
In Kirby’s words
“The throw he made against quarter-quarter halves (coverage), corners jam, he looks the safety off …. “ Smart said. “It was like he knew what he was doing at a young age, like, the whole play, he knew the whole time, ‘I’m going to look over here, and I’m going to bang it back over there,’ and he did.
“It was right after he had just taken a sack, too.”
McFadden brought up to Smart how Saban has had remarkable success against former assistants, now 23-0.
“You look at his record against anybody since he’s been at Alabama, it’s pretty strong,” Smart said. “I think Gus Malzahn had a pretty good record against him (3-5), and Hugh Freeze did a pretty good job at Ole Miss and got him twice.
“But outside of that, there’s nobody really beating Alabama a lot in terms of consistently, because they’ve got really good players. He does a really good job of not beating himself, and he’s got excellent staff and he’s got good players.”
But Smart is not shy to say he believes Georgia football can knock off the Crimson Tide.
It was well documented that Georgia led or was tied 118 minutes, 54 seconds of the 120 minutes of the first two games Smart met Saban.
Last season, UGA held a 24-20 halftime lead in Tuscaloosa despite being out-gunned at the quarterback position with Alabama boasting a Heisman Trophy finalist against a former walk-on.
“He’d be the first to admit it’s probably going to happen if you play enough games and one of his former staffers has a really talented team, they’re going to have an opportunity,” Smart said.
“Hey we’ve had as good of a chance as anyone,” Smart said. “We led them at the half this year, and then the other two times we didn’t finish in the fourth. So we know we’ve got a good team, we know we’ve got a great opportunity, but eventually, it’s going to happen.”
Already, UGA is off to a great start with the key retention of QB JT Daniels, nose tack Jordan Davis, explosive playmaker James Cook and interior defensive and offensive linemen Devonte Wyatt and Justin Shaffer.
So while the 2017 CFP Championship Game will certainly cross Smart’s mind, it’s a good bet the Georgia head coach will be thinking more about what needs to happen in 2021 for his football program to make history.
Georgia football offseason